The Benefits of Check Lists

Check lists are a time honored way of keeping track of breaking down an objective and monitoring progress.  There are a number of benefits to using check lists.  Check lists should not be confused with a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).  A WBS is a form of a check list of all of the tasks required to produce the product or project objective. Ultimately a check list is an ordered list evoking us to take action to achieve some goal or objective.  Check lists can be used as gate review criterion for stage gate forms of project management. We then are able to prepare for the review meeting with some confidence in the objectives for that phase being achieved (or not) but we know.

Check Lists and Recycling

Recycling check lists are helpful in streamlining subsequent iterations. Instead of generating an entirely new check list, we use one we have already produced saving time.  This is especially helpful when there is a consistency of steps in achieving the project ends.

There is a downside of recycling our check lists.  Consider the situation where we have forgotten key tasks in our checklist and we go to use that same check list in a subsequent, similar project.  Unless we have presence of mind to update we will likely miss the same things we missed in the previous checklist.  If we are the only owner of the check list, it is possible for us to manage the list on our own – noticing that we missed something. However, when a check list is used by many people in the organization, the lessons learned from prior projects may not be introduced in a way that updates all uses of the checklist.  Additionally, checklists can be relatively singular of purpose – in other words, one check list is used in one project incarnation but change the project and we change the tasks to achieve the project objective.  That can require updating of the check list to reflect the new objectives and differences.

Check List Limitations

Limits of checklists come when we treat the list as the definitive assessment even though we are missing many details about each list item.  We end up boiling our entire process down to a checkbox mentality.  Consider our WBS. Not only do we have the list itself, but to ensure we meet the objective of the specific listed item we have a WBS Dictionary to provide an objective definition of success.

The value of the check list, perhaps, is proportional to the knowledge of the owner on the topic and the details (what constitutes success) of each item in the list.  The inability to objectively assess whether the check list aspect has been met will reduce the veracity of the check list.  Once we start adding details of what embodies success, we start to move away from a check list and toward something more akin to a specification or detailed document.

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